60 Years of Superhero Leadership
By Chris Powers
This year’s MHEDA Convention theme is “Superhero Leadership.” No one exemplifies that spirit more than industry legend Howard Bernstein, founder and longtime CEO of The Atlas Companies in Schiller Park, Ill. After starting his company in 1951, Bernstein remained at the helm until stepping down in 2011 at the age of 88. He served on the MHEDA Board for 18 years, including as president in 1964, and has only missed two Conventions in 60 years.
With that resume, it’s safe to say nobody knows MHEDA better than Howard Bernstein.
He got involved with MHEDA shortly after it was formed. He wasn’t one of the original eight founders, but he did business with some of them. He was invited to the first MHEDA Convention in Chicago in 1954, and it was there that the association got the first taste of Bernstein’s leadership. One of the first proposed bylaws would have required members to represent a new line of forklifts. Bernstein stood up and told the assembled dealers that they were “inviting trouble” if they didn’t get all dealers involved, representing new and used equipment. The association members wisely took his advice, and the diverse membership is one reason Bernstein says the association has thrived over the years.
Another reason is the improved manufacturer-distributor relations MHEDA helped foster over the years. In the association’s early days, many of the leading manufacturers expressed interest at the establishment of a distributors’ association. “They tried to discourage their distributors from joining,” he recalls with a chuckle.
“In spite of those requests, many of the first MHEDA presidents represented those manufacturers. One of MHEDA’s most important moves was to include the Manufacturers’ Fair (Exhibitors’ Showcase) at the Convention to get the manufacturers involved. It was a great way to build trust and camaraderie.”
It’s that camaraderie that Bernstein says has been a constant throughout MHEDA’s history. “I stayed in the business full time until I was 88 years old and only missed two Conventions. It’s that camaraderie that kept me in it,” he said. “Interacting with everyone and continuing to meet people and learn the industry were too much to give up.”
In particular, he says, MHEDA’s greatest strength has been in its talented leadership. From the beginning, he says admiringly, MHEDA has been blessed with strong, visionary leaders. “The founders had great intentions to promote the organization, upgrade the standards of distributors and grow the industry,” he said. “Then and now, MHEDA has always been about what dealers can learn from each other.” He gives special recognition to Dan Reilly, who served as executive director for more than 30 years, and Liz Richards, who has led MHEDA since 1995. “Our leaders have always known what is best to help distributors, whether it has been publications, statistics or other worthwhile programs,” Bernstein added.
Among those worthwhile programs has been MHEDA’s focus on education. The association was built to help distributors teach each other best practices, and Bernstein was a beneficiary of that goal. And he’s paying it forward. Education is the cause that keeps Bernstein motivated these days, from his work on the Board of an aviation museum in California to his work with the Howard Bernstein Material Handling Industrial Distribution Scholarship that he established in 2012 to help prepare young people learn the industry.
MHEDA also will help in that endeavor, and looking to the future, ultimately, is what MHEDA is all about. It has survived and thrived because it has adhered to its mission to improve the efficiency of the material handling distributor. Take it from the industry’s ultimate example of Superhero Leadership.